My advice to new teachers at the start of the school year


I first posted this in 2011, but I still stand by this advice. There are also some really great comments at the bottom that contain additional advice:

1) Be yourself (unless your “self” is rude, obnoxious, spiteful, arrogant, or similarly unpleasant in which case you should rethink your chosen profession anyway). When I first started teaching I worked very hard at adopting my “teacher persona.” I believe this was a result of some benign advice from an associate teacher or a professor at the faculty of education. The thing is, it’s exhausting and the kids see right through it. I tried to copy the teaching styles of teachers I respected and admired, and I suppose that’s not a bad way to start. It actually helped me figure out the kind of teacher that I’m not. I am not a stern no-nonsense disciplinarian. I am silly, laid-back, and occasionally irreverent. That doesn’t mean my students run amok, but I had to find my own way to “be a teacher.”

2) Dress up. A little. But dress your age. If you, like me, barreled on through your undergrad and straight into teacher’s college and then were lucky enough to get a position the next school year (I know… very lucky), then you’re… what… 23? Wow. You’re not much older than the grade 12s and you won’t look much older. You’re not going to fool anyone into thinking that you’re an ancient 30 something like I am, but when you’re 23, it’s embarrassing and awkward to be mistaken for a student (When you’re 32, it rocks). So, judge the vibe of your school. Some schools are more casual than others, but don’t think you can get away with the board short and flip-flop look that the eccentric, close-to-retirement, history teacher is “rocking” (questionably). If you dress up a little bit, it sends a signal that you think this important enough to dress up for and that helps–but don’t be afraid to out your own stamp on it that says “hey I’m not 32 yet.”

3) Don’t do stupid things. You’ve probably already been so scared by faculty of education lectures and gossipy horror stories that spread through your social foundations class about teachers who did foolish things on social media and were then fired. That’s not what I’m here to do. I do not want you to decide to erase your web presence and ban technology from the classroom because you’re afraid of all the horrible things that could happen to you. We are in an interesting place in our history right now and I suspect 20 years from now (I hope) we’ll all laugh about the angst we were having in education over social media. Rather than trying to eliminate your web presence, create a professional one. Start a professional blog where you reflect on and share evidence of your learning. Get on Twitter and start following other teachers (Not sure how to get started? Go here.). They will be a great support network for you and can help you out when it’s 1:00am and you really can’t hash out ideas with your department head and your girlfriend is sick of hearing about how stressed out you are. Don’t friend students on Facebook (I know some teachers who do and I have the utmost faith that they are extremely professional with their students but I won’t ever advise you to do it), but you may consider setting up a Facebook page for your class. If you teach in the Waterloo board in fact, it’s encouraged. That way you can keep in touch with students in with a medium they use, but they don’t have access to your personal information. Bottom line: never post anything online that you wouldn’t say in front of the class or in front of your principal. If you must vent, save it for direct messages and emails to your friends.

4) Cut yourself some slack. You won’t be a perfect teacher in your first year. Actually you’ll never be a perfect teacher. That’s okay. Think of your goal for your first year as being one of survival and harm reduction. Do as little harm as possible to yourself and your students, and you’re off to a good start in my opinion. If you’re a good teacher, you’re probably going to spend a lot of time agonizing over decisions you made, coming up with different ways you could have but didn’t handle a situation, and generally berating yourself for sucking. You probably don’t suck. Lighten up. Have a beer. Go for a night out with your non-teacher friends (do you still have those?) and don’t talk about school–they won’t get it and it’s not healthy for you to talk about it all the time.

This is hardly an exhaustive list but you probably have enough people giving you advice. Hang in there. Have some fun. Don’t take yourself so seriously.

We shape the furniture…The furniture shapes our teaching


McLuhan said “we shape our tools, and thereafter our toolsshape us.” I generally blog about technology tools but in my current MEd class we had a discussion about how one defines technology. On our wiki we defined it as: Tools that extend our capabilities ease the process of what we do.

Well then things like furniture, chairs, desks, light fixtures, bookshelves are pieces of technology too. It’s just that they’ve been around so long, we don’t consider them to be technology anymore. They’ve become “transparent.” We often question how technology can impact student learning, so why not extend this back a little and question how furniture can impact student learning.

I’ve been thinking of this because I’m not a big fan of the furniture in my classrooms. I don’t have a lot of control over the layout of the classroom because I share these rooms with other teachers. I used to think that where I taught was not remotely as important as how I taught until I started to consider that how I taught might be strongly influenced by the environment of my classroom.

Classroom layout #1

My media class is in a computer lab (a techie teacher’s dream right?). I only teach in here one period a day. This is really the “business” room. I have no space to display media related work on the bulletin boards and I have no resources in this room. The desks are arranged around the perimeter of the room with all the monitors facing the middle of the room. I imagine that this is for two main reasons: 1) because all the outlets are along the walls; 2) because it’s easier for classroom management. I’ve got a teacher’s desk at one end of the room with a projector, and there are big tables filling the center of the room.

How this affects my teaching:

My students spend most of the class with their backs to me. It takes me weeks to learn their names and much to my embarrassment, weeks into a course I would still get students mixed up. I have a much harder time forming relationships with my students in this room than I do in my other room. I have to yell more because it’s hard for me to be heard at the back of the room. Students are more isolated and because the layout of the classroom makes group work challenging, it doesn’t happen very often.

I suspect students do not feel like this classroom is a community. I’m sure there are things I could do to help resolve this issue, but I can’t deny the fact that the physical space affects my approach to teaching. It’s easier to work with the space than against it.

Classroom #2

Traditional English class.

Like the media class, I only teach in here one period a day so I don’t feel much ownership over this room. I don’t have any student work up on the wall (unlike my classroom last semester where I taught two classes) because the room doesn’t really feel like mine to decorate. The room is … well … usually an absolute disaster. There’s a blue hoodie that’s been on the desk at the back of the room since January. There are papers and books everywhere. I’ve staked out a tiny corner of the filing cabinet for my file folder. I’m sure if I complained or even gently suggested, that the messiness would improve but it’s not “my classroom” so I kind of feel like I’m going into a friend’s house and complaining about her kids’ toys cluttering the living room (and to be fair it seemed much tidier this morning).

The desks are in rows but paired together. I feel barracaded behind the circa 1930 teacher’s desk, flanked by gigantic filing cabinets on my right, and an imposing wooden tv cart on my left (oh and a data-projector cart in front of me.)

How it affects my teaching: I still feel like I’m the “sage on the stage.” The students all face me instead of each other and my desk clearly signals my “status” in the room. I also feel incredibly inaccessible. On the other hand, the paired desks make me much more likely to use strategies like think pair share and it’s very easy to move the desks for things like literature circles. Still I wish there was more open space in the room to allow students to move around.

I wonder what would happen if we took all the big monolithic teachers’ desks out of all the classrooms one day. I bet we’d have chaos. I bet the teachers would lose it. And then I bet we’d have change. We’d have to eventually change the way we think about those transparent forms of power and control that exist in the classroom. I’m not arguing that those power structures are created by the furniture but they’re certainly supported by the furniture.

And don’t even get me started on the fluorescent lights…

Now what?


Photo credit

After TED and Saturday’s workshops, I asked myself the above question and then quickly remembered– Oh yeah! I’m bringing two students to the Board Office (insert angelic chorus and shaft of light beaming down from the heavens–just kidding. I’ve worked there. I know.) to share their experiences with Ning and bookclubs with some intermediate teachers.

I feel like I’ve missed a lot of class lately so I was feeling a little guilty but now as I sit at home at 3:30(!) sipping a caramel machiatto and eating some cookies and reflecting on the day–guilt be gone! I did–or rather–we did good today!

My super smart and talented friend Heather who I abandoned last year to return to the classroom asked me if I’d be willing to come and speak at the final sessions of a series of Creating Strategic Readers workshops. Now while I’m thrilled to be back in the classroom there are a number of things I really miss about being a learning coordinator:

  • having time to direct my own professional learning
  • being a part of important board initiatives
  • being in the loop
  • the salad bar in the cafeteria
  • being able to go to the washroom whenever I want (!)
  • But mostly — I miss working with all the cool people (particularly Heather–or H-Dawg as I like to call her. It’s her street name. It’s a thing. … never mind)

So when Heather asked me to come in I was really excited–also because I got to share things that I’d actually tried with students–unlike last year where I had to speak in theoretical terms which was often frustrating. Heather also asked me if I could bring some students.

I chose two girls from my 4C class last semester. They weren’t the highest achievers in my class and they weren’t the stereotypical “good students”, but they were really great kids–one very outgoing and confident, and one a little shy and quiet. We drove down to the board office and I explained to the girls that I would talk for a bit, but that the teachers would be way more interested in what they had to say.

The girls rocked! It was so awesome when a teacher asked me a question and I was able to redirect to the girls. eg/ Teacher: So did you find that the boys in the class were more engaged when using your class Ning?

Me: Girls?

Superstar student #1: Oh yeah!

Superstar student #2: Totally!

Superstar student #1: Like Andrew–he’d never read a book before!

Teacher: But what about bullying? How did you find the other students were when it came to saying inappropriate things?

Me: Girls?

Superstar Student #1: Well, like Ms. Barker was monitoring everything so we know we couldn’t say bad stuff–not that we would–

Superstar Student #2: Yeah, and actually I felt like the opposite happened. Like even if you didn’t really like someone, you were still writing positive comments. It’s like were a big team and we all want to help each other out.

Me: I paid them to say that.

So cool. The girls were great. I think the coolest part was what we talked about when on the way home. The girls talked about how teachers needed to be open-minded and try new things and they liked it when teachers tried to value the things they did outside of class. I know they were only two of my students, but it was so nice to feel like all of my hunches about what made good teaching were true at least for them. Plus they were so much more credible as experts than I ever could be.

No, the coolest part was when I overheard a teacher say to another teacher “They’re awesome!”

And sure, some of the teachers were resistant, or they felt like they couldn’t do this with their students, or that it must take way too much time, but now that I’m a classroom teacher, my response is simple: Yes it takes time. Yes there are challenges. But it’s worth it to me because I see the difference it makes in my students’ learning. If you feel like you’ve got enough challenges right now, or you don’t think it’s worth the time, don’t do it. I’m just sharing.

So liberating. Seriously. Last year when teachers would push back or come up with excuses I would get really defensive. Now I smile and nod and say, “Then this may not be the right choice for you.” And I can say that because I know what works for me and it’s totally worth it–especially when I hear Superstar Student # 2 say “Wow I think we really rocked that, don’t you?”

Yep. We rocked that.



A lot of people have asked me about my “career path”, and most of them are surprised that my answer doesn’t include getting into administration. They often seem a little deflated as though administration is obviously the ultimate goal for any ambitious, moderately capable teacher.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m very impressed by the obvious work ethic, ambition, self-confidence, and determination of those young administrators out there (and the not so young ones, Dad). I’ve met many of them and I’m convinced they’re in it for the right reasons and they feel very strongly about their abilities to impact student achievement. I just don’t think that that’s the only way to have an impact in education.

I haven’t completely figured out what I want to be doing as a teacher ten years from now, but I do know that it will involve being in the classroom. I’d like to do my masters, I’d like to write, do some action research. . . . I have lots of ambition, and to prove it, here is my ultimate goal: I want to be a exemplary teacher. I want to be a rock star among teachers. I want to be the kind of teacher about whom other teachers will say “Oh, go ask her. She’s an awesome teacher.” I want to be a really good teacher.

Quite frankly, I don’t think it gets more ambitious than that.

It’s all good in theory….

I’ve been learning so much lately in my job and I’ve really enjoyed being able to talk to and learn from the the teachers I’ve been working with. I never really felt all that passionate about or interested in pedagogy and I spent the first five years of my teaching career coming to the conclusion that there wasn’t a whole lot that I could do as a teacher that would make a difference. Kids wouldn’t show up for class because they had family/psychological/social/motivational (whatever) issues and so there was nothing I could do about them, and the rest of the students were either too lazy to try or were only motivated by numbers on a page. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of course. There’s all the administrative pressure to submit marks. I couldn’t control the fact that students were late all the time without consequences and on and on and on. So why would I be motivated to think about pedagogical theory?

It’s a really amazing opportunity to spend a year outside of that situation to be able to think deeply about these ideas and discover things that you are passionate about without the day to day pressures of the classroom (not that there haven’t been pressure this year–don’t even get me started there!).

I feel like I’ve got a tonne of strategies for helping struggling and reluctant readers and I feel so much more confident in my knowledge of curriculum, assessment, and instructional practice. I have so many things I’d like to try when I get back into the classroom but– and here’s the big but– what if I get back into the classroom and I can’t or don’t implement any of the things I’m thinking about right now? It’s so easy to lose sight of the big picture when you’ve got a kid in your class telling you to f@*# off, or when you’re dealing with a parent who really doesn’t care whether or not her son attends your class. How am I going to maintain this energy and optimism when I’m back in the classroom? How do I make sure this year isn’t a waste? 

Any ideas?